Features & Columns

Silicon Alleys: SJSU Alumnus' New Opera Envisions 'Frankenstein' as Futuristic Dystopia

Mark Grey sparked audience interest with his operatic adaptation of 'Frankenstein' in Brussels. Photo by B. Uhlig, via La Monnaie De Munt.

In Brussels last week, SJSU School of Music alumnus Mark Grey debuted his first full-length opera, a work based on Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Over six years in the making and running two hours and 40 minutes, the opera completed a nearly sold-out run of eight performances at La Monnaie, Belgium's federal opera house. Originally slotted for 2016, the production was put back a few years due to renovations of the La Monnaie building.

The afternoon matinee on Sunday, March 17, felt particularly historical because three other School of Music alumni and former classmates of Grey's from the same era, but now living in three different countries, all descended upon the performance. Of course, yours truly was one of them, so allow me to disclose that Grey and I are old friends. We spent many months carrying on about 20th-century music at San Jose's House of Siam restaurant back in the mid-'90s.

Last week, Grey's Frankenstein received significant press coverage in several languages, including French, Dutch, Italian, Spanish and German, with Grey mentioning in every interview that Allen Strange, one of his musical mentors at SJSU, instilled in him an avant-garde spirit from the outset. The lengthy program booklet even included an essay about Grey's work, written by Charles Shafaieh, citing Grey's youth in Palo Alto and how he grew up alongside the technology industry taking over the valley, the dynamics of which became part of his American identity. Shafaieh even writes that the white noise and sounds of machinery Grey utilized at the opening of the opera were salutes to industrial noise acts like Merzbow and Nurse With Wound.

However, the traditionally orchestrated music Grey employed throughout the work was quite accessible and filled with color, steering the capacity crowds through a matrix of emotions from beginning to end. Collaborating with librettist Julia Canosa i Serra, he scored the work with several operatic luminaries in mind, including baritone Scott Hendricks, who played Victor Frankenstein, and tenor Topi Lehtipuu, who played the creature.

Factor in the talents of director Alex Olle of the Catalan collective La Fura dels Baus, and the Frankenstein production was a multimedia feast of dystopian bleakness at its finest. Set in the Arctic region 200 years from now, in a bizarre existence where everyone is bald, as if a colony of Buddhist monks were extracted from a botched cryonics experiment, the production utilized elaborate sci-fi settings, disregarding any stereotypes of the Hollywood Frankenstein and instead returning to the issues Shelley's novel originally explored—abandonment, isolation, self-loathing, guilt and sacrifice, with updated concerns about technology's role in society. Various video projections appeared on scrims that draped down to the stage, producing complicated visual environments that won't easily be replicated in any podunk opera house. The costumes were similarly intriguing projects. In Lehtipuu's case, it took over an hour to apply the makeup and body modifications each night.

One of the heralded opera houses of Europe, La Monnaie played a role in the Belgian Revolution of 1830, with aspiring rioters spilling out from an opera to help launch the uprising. La Monnaie also includes a separate six-story neoclassical structure housing all the ateliers and workshops. Rehearsal spaces for the singers and the orchestra accommodate a few hundred audience members. Other floors feature expansive metalworking and carpentry shops, plus a full-blown set construction workshop using the same dimensions as the stage. On the fifth floor, costume shops produce every single piece of clothing from scratch, all the way down to employing old-school bespoke shoemakers. Every person involved with the production can thus see what everyone else is working on, therefore streamlining the process, rather than having the set designers, costume designers and musicians putting the show together in separate places all over town. It's an enormous operation with 400 regular employees, notwithstanding an additional combined 800 that might show up all year to work on each particular production.

When it comes to modern-day opera, an insurrectionist spirit certainly emerged last week. Thanks to Grey, the SJSU School of Music can now claim a handful of its own alumni converged upon La Monnaie in the footsteps of the Belgian Revolution. The rest is history.